Turn by Turn: The Story of Battlefront

How the creators of Combat Mission turned their war-gaming passion into a business.
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Battlefront.com was not founded but raised, like a medieval army on the march. Formed out of necessity in the late 90s, it publishes a small catalog of high concept strategy and war games while tending to its own franchise, the Combat Mission series of infantry combat simulations. The company's leaders, Steve Grammont and Charles Moylan, are wargamers who sought to make a living making games other wargamers would want to play. They never intended to become publishers, but their unexpected success has helped bring other like-minded creatives under their flag. They don't sell their games through Steam because they don't have to. For the most part, their customers come to them. The momentum they've generated over the last 15 years lets them chart their own path.

As far as niche hobbies go, historical wargaming has more blind alleys than most. Every time period is represented, as is every physical and virtual format. But common among most all hardcore wargamers, or grognards (from the French grogner: to grunt, or grumble, as an old soldier), is a disdain for simplification. To grognards, things like abstracted damage modeling, counting down from 100 percent health to death, are insulting to the people who actually fought, as well as to the intelligence of the player. It is on these grognards' appetite for detail that Battlefront.com was built.

"Canaries in the coal mine," Grammont calls them. "If we lose them we're probably going to lose the rest of the players. They epitomize a certain something in [our games] that is drawing in the vast majority of customers, whether they know it or not."

The story of the company's first game, a WWII-themed infantry simulation called Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, is the story of how Battlefront.com came to be one of the last bastions of serious wargaming.

Mission Briefing

Turnbyturn_image1_400x650Steve Grammont went from film student to history buff to game programmer.

All plans change upon first contact with the enemy. For Grammont, the more outgoing of Battlefront.com's two founders, his enemy was his coursework at Ithaca College. He had enrolled in the college's film program, but ended up with a degree from the history department. Then, while heading for academia, he took a hard right turn into Macintosh programming and historical war game design.

His grandfather gifted him some seed money out of college, in 1994 Grammont pitched a small game called Onslaught to veteran developer Gordon Walton, of Harpoon fame. Games were printed and packaged, but Grammont either wasn't paid by Walton's partners, or "about eight months later the stores would say, 'Oh, well we didn't sell these.' They pretended like it was a consignment deal." Just as Grammont took receipt of the second small printing of manuals and disks, most of the first shipment was returned to him piecemeal. Retail wanted its money back and Walton was little help. It took Grammont most of a year to come to the realization that his first game had flopped.

"There was no fencing, or railing, or anything. OSHA would have thrown a fit in that place."

The way that his retail partners turned on him, how his first publisher abandoned him, would color every decision Grammont would make from there on out. The more immediate need, however, was making a living wage.

"I didn't have enough to do another [game], but I didn't want to stop. I felt that I had learned a lot. I didn't want to lose what I had already invested, at least in terms of time and knowledge."

Reconnaissance in Force

Grammont was living just outside Boston at the time. The East Coast had been a hotbed for wargaming since the '60s, thanks to preeminent tabletop game publisher Avalon Hill. Founded in 1954, the company had spent more than 40 years selling a catalog that included some viciously complex war games. Among the most successful was the WWII-themed Squad Leader series, a game played with cardboard chits so fiddly you needed numismatist's tweezers to move them around the board. The rules were so famously complex that misinterpreting them became a game mechanic; players were instructed never to go back and fix an error, but instead to chalk it up to the chaos of war. It was like catnip to grognards.

In the '90s, Avalon Hill was still coming down off the high times of the late-'70s tabletop market and was looking, albeit grudgingly, to diversify into computer games. Grammont maneuvered his way into a meeting with producer Bill Levay to make his pitch. If anyone would want to make the turn-based computer games that Grammont was interested in, it would be Levay.

Grammont remembers traveling through a seedy corner of Baltimore, Maryland to a squat building that had clearly been designed for the express purpose of removing used lubricant from automobiles. "All I know is that when I was standing on one floor I could look through a car-sized hole going up." It became apparent to Grammont that time had not been kind to the granddaddy of wargaming, as Avalon Hill's computer division had been exiled to an old mechanic's shop.

"There was no fencing, or railing, or anything. That's bad, when basically a kid can look at a work environment and see that it's not going to pass any kind of sniff test with an inspector. OSHA would have thrown a fit in that place. The furniture looked like it came from Goodwill."

The meeting did not go well, and it seemed for a time that one failure would be closely followed by another. Levay referred Grammont to Keith Zabalaoui, principal at one of Avalon Hill's stables of computer developers, Atomic Games. He wasn't interested either, but he told Grammont, 'there's this guy ... who's pretty much doing the same thing you are, and Avalon Hill's just pissed him off, too. His name is Charles Moylan.'"

Turns out Grammont and Moylan lived less than two blocks away from each other.

Turnbytuen_image2_400x500Charles Moylan (above) and Grammont bonded over a shared love of militaria and programing.

Reinforcements Arrive

The other half of Battlefront.com, Charles Moylan, has always been a cerebral person. On the company's site, he is the only staff member with no headshot, just the image of a brain simmering in a "nutrient rich broth." He went to college for programming at a time when some still considered it a speculative pursuit, and made a name for himself in the fledgling games industry by banging out sophisticated, reliable game engines and smearing someone else's content into the gaps. Moylan is also a very private person, and declined to be interviewed for this piece.

His Flight Commander series was already successful, cleverly turning air-to-air combat into a turn-based affair that consumer-grade computers of the day could easily digest. Martin van Balkom, a partner with Battlefront.com who handles the website and marketing, is still awed by his grasp of mathematics. "I've seen him do floating point calculations by hand, nearly in his head, in front of me."

In 1995 when a nearly desperate Grammont cold-called Moylan, they chatted a bit on the phone about the industry, their love of war games and their mutual interest in WWII and militaria in general. They became fast friends.

"We both like beer. Good beer," says Grammont. "There was a place near our apartments that had really good Guinness on tap. I was already saying to him that I thought I was screwed. I can't make my own games, and I can't seem to make Avalon Hill bite on anything. And Charles says, 'Well, hey, this company in town, they wanted me to do some kind of [Macintosh] port work. Maybe you could find something to do there."

That company was Sierra's Impressions division in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Grammont's luck finally turned, and they practically offered him a job as a QA manager on the spot. The department was a shambles, and someone who had experience developing and publishing their own game seemed like the perfect person to throw into the breach.

Avalon Hill took the nuclear option, firing the entire staff and selling to Hasbro.

"[Sierra] picked me, I think, because I was very sympathetic to the development team because I had done that kind of work myself," Grammont says. "My [QA team] thought that I was a stooge for a while." They were "purists," and wanted the game to be perfect, something Grammont knew from experience to be impossible.

The game sold well, and to his surprise Grammont was tapped to produce a sequel, Civil War Generals 2. But with increased responsibility came increased risks. Games that ended up losing money at Sierra had that shortfall split among the budgets — and bonuses — of all the other development teams. Instead of fostering teamwork among the entire staff, it made management antagonistic of potentially failing projects.

Late in the production of Civil War Generals 2 Sierra's founder, none other than Ken Williams, rolled into Cambridge with a full head of steam. "Real-time strategy games had taken off. And Sierra thought, 'Oh, now we just have to make RTS games.'" The anger still shows in Grammont's voice when he talks about it. "So we fought him. I told the guy who founded Sierra, at a meeting … I told him he was wrong. And afterwards everybody in our office was patting me on the back going 'Wow!' And I won. They backed off. They let us do what we wanted to do.

"We made a kick-ass game. ... It wound up selling a lot. A lot more than they thought it would. The games that [Sierra] had made for real-time strategy all bombed." Whether that episode was the last straw Grammont won't say, but soon after, he quit Sierra and moved with his wife to the rugged hill country outside Bangor, Maine, where he lives today.

Turnbyturn_image3_1100x731

Exploit the Gap

Turnbyturn_image4_400x3002D Close Combat wiped the floor with Avalon Hill's computer games. Turnbyturn_image5_400x285Combat Mission

Meanwhile, Charles Moylan continued to beat his head against the wall. An already anemic Avalon Hill took a turn for the worse when Keith Zabalaoui's Atomic Games defected to Microsoft. There, his top-down, 2D sprite-based RTS title Close Combat put to shame anything that came out of Avalon Hill.

Late in 1998, Moylan convinced Avalon Hill owner A. Eric Dott to let him port their marquee title Squad Leader to the computer, but it was too late. In relative secrecy Dott took the nuclear option, firing the entire staff at Avalon Hill and selling to Hasbro. Now it was Moylan's turn to take hat in hand and ply his wares among the predatory remaining publishers in the wargaming world.

Close Combat put to shame anything that came out of Avalon Hill.

Now partnered under the name Battlefront.com, the offers the team was given were laughable. "They said," Grammont mocks, "'We promise not to shoot you in the head. However, we will cut you in the gut and let you slowly bleed to death. Please sign here.' We're like, 'Well okay … we want that bit there taken out of the contract' … 'Oh jeez, well. We can't remove that.' 'Well sure you can. You go into Word and hit delete and we're all set, we can have a deal.'" No one blinked.

Taking stock of the greater games industry over a few rounds at the pub, the pair saw an opportunity. While flight sims and FPSs had moved into three dimensions, war games lagged behind. It was Moylan who proposed, via back-of-the-napkin sketches, that they could leapfrog 2D games like Close Combat with a 3D engine. The gamble would add complexity and drama, especially when married to a simulation along the lines of Squad Leader. If they couldn't sell it to anyone else, they were confident they could sell it to WWII grognards by mail order. It was a scheme that lay somewhere at the intersection of truly stupid and deeply ignorant.

Nuts!

It only took Moylan five months to prototype the game. "Really quickly done 3D models and very, very simplistic movement," Grammont remembers, "so that you could get a real visual, visceral sense of what it could look like if you put a lot of time and money into it. It was enough." The terrain was composed of interlocking squares with cover and elevation, while the units themselves would move via a point-based system like the original X-Com: Enemy Unknown. In motion it was seamless. Units appeared to move unhindered over the terrain, like miniatures floating above a green, flocked table. They could move and fire at anything they could "see."

To eschew the tedium of tabletop games, the pair invented the "WeGo" system, which remains unique among war games. Each player issues orders to their units en masse, then 60 seconds of simulation runs fully outside of the player's control. You can only watch, assisted by VCR-like controls and a free-floating camera. It creates a cinematic feel inspired by Grammont's background at film school. Little dramas play out across the map; tanks advance, squads retreat, mortars fall, aircraft strafe. Players got a real sense for command, assuming the role of not merely the overall commander, but of every unit leader on the field, from sergeant on up.

While Moylan refined the engine, Grammont taught himself 3D modeling and began cranking out infantry units and armored vehicles by the dozen. "I came up with this brilliant idea of going to a model club," says Grammont. "It was in Baltimore. We stayed at Charles' parent's house. It was a large, international scale modeler's convention. And we got friendly with the organizers and we went down there and we took photographs.

It only took Moylan five months to prototype the game.

"We had a list of all the tanks and all the trucks we had to put in the game. When we went down onto the floor of the convention and saw somebody who had a model Tiger tank, we would take pictures of it from the front, sides and top. And this was before digital cameras. I had some 1/35th scale models that I still had from when I was a kid, so I took some test pictures and kind of figured out roughly how far away I could get.… So I'm sitting down with a 35mm camera and a tripod. We had no idea if the pictures were going to come out well. Of course you never got the angles correct … but we got about 80 percent of the stuff we needed and it looked pretty decent for the day."

In addition to the costs of developing all that film, another large part of the game's budget went to research. "Charles and I split up the responsibilities for doing the tables of organization [for the historical armies], how the units were organized. And that was actually pretty difficult to do because the internet didn't have very much on it yet in '97. I had all these obscure materials. Some of these books, man … I remember one book cost me 100 bucks and had been out of print for 20 years. Now, there's better information online than I had in my books. Just a different age."

More than two solid years of work, thousands of man-hours spent working for themselves learning new strategies and disciplines, until finally the two-man team was finished.

"So that was how we made the game."

Turnbyturn_image6_400x251Combat Mission combat prototype Turnbyturn_image6Tank miniature photographed by Grammont Turnbyturn_image7_400x300Combat Mission "alpha" Turnbyturn_image8_400x300Combat Mission "beta"

Defend and Hold

In 1999 they had an early demo, then a downloadable beta to create a steady flow of pre-orders. At the eleventh hour, just before they ordered their disks and manuals from production, Grammont's phone rang.

"Charles got a call from one of the big publishers. I think it was SSI. He called me one day and he said, 'I think Plan B is on hold. These guys seem to be wanting to play ball.'

"This was the beginning of something very interesting that we hadn't expected. We were so shunned by this industry … me individually before I went to [Sierra]. Then I saw how the industry even chewed up its own insides [once I was there], and then Charles got his full dose of it when he was shopping around for a replacement for Avalon Hill. We were just fully convinced that there was no other way, that that was it. We were going to do it ourselves and that we would never hear from these people again.

"And then here they were, now that they had something tangible [to play]. And they were willing to negotiate, to some extent. Far more than they were before." In the end the men walked away from the table, guarding their fears with a hard won pride.

They had no idea what was about to happen to them.

Combat Mission ranks number 35 in PC Gamer's all-time great PC titles

In 2000 they finally took receipt of their thick manuals, shrink-wrapped around the fragile game disks. They didn't have enough money for boxes, devoting what little capital they had left to stamps. "I think Charles did a number and said we'll have to sell 'X' amount to make this worthwhile. It was, by today's standards, a joke, and he was saying 'Boy, but I don't think we're gonna make that.' I thought we would [make that number] and then some. Charles is far more conservative than I am, and I'm not what you would call optimistic."

The actual number of orders blew them away. "You know that FedEx commercial where they had like four or five people standing around a computer … and there's a couple of orders and they cheer … and then there's like a tenfold increase in orders and they all just stare dumbfounded at the computer? So we had that."

Grammont cobbled together some borrowed scripts, running batches of credit card transactions overnight on an unprotected Linux server. It cost them all of $35, but it worked.

Only then did the reviews start to come in from the gaming press, and the long tail began to unfurl before them. In 2001, less than a year after its release, Combat Mission was ranked among the top five "Wargame Classics" in the March, issue 200 of Computer Gaming World, right next to Harpoon and Close Combat. It still ranks number 35 in PC Gamer's all-time great PC titles.

Old Soldiers Never Die

Turnbyturn_image9_400x257Grammont and Moylan are continually surprised at how many people out there share their passion. Turnbyturn_image10_400x250Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, the latest in the long-running series

Since 2000, the Combat Mission franchise has portrayed modern conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, WWII-era Africa and Italy, and undergone two full revisions of the core engine. Today the company is as big as it's ever been, with a full-time staff of nearly 12 and contracts to publish games from developers across the globe. "Some of our best," Grammont emphasizes, "very best business partners over the longest period of time are Russians, which is unusual."

One secret to their success is their many volunteers. "You know this is a niche. Other companies, they've got 300 people working on that game and you've got the same expectations? Great," says Grammont. "One of the ways that we compensate for just the simple financial impossibility of hiring enough people to do all the work is that we've got people that are essentially working just because they want to. Somebody has impressed us on the forum, over a long period of time, and we realize that they can either help test or make scenarios or there's some reason that we'll bring them in. There's nobody who's worked for us, either volunteer or for pay, that we weren't already aware of beforehand."

One of those people is developer Clay Fowler. In 2006 Battlefront.com signed a deal with Fowler to publish his first game, DropTeam. It was a flop, much like Grammont's Onslaught was out of the gate. Fowler went on to other things, only making games infrequently, as a side business, but in 2012 he pitched Battlefront.com a small-scale iOS port called Combat Mission: Touch.

"Both parties approached it as a kind of learning experience. There are no serious 3D war games on iOS. We had no idea how it would work." Grammont says there are many more games left to make in the Combat Mission franchise, especially on iOS. "We would love to do more with it. We want to do more with it. It's either that or one of the 300 other games that Charles and I have in our heads that we don't have time to make."

Grammont and Moylan and the rest of Battlefront.com are continually surprised at how many people out there share their passion for wargaming, their respect for warfighters. They believe curiosity about those past and future conflicts will keep them busy in the years to come. Babykayak

Image credits: Battlefront.com
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